Two friends of mine have been talking about clothes lately. Here are their situations in brief:
Friend A is a professional woman, a freelancer, whose life and work intertwine a lot. She works with clients in her studio in her apartment, for example. She is interested in curating her wardrobe so it works for easy daily wear, but also gives the impression of competence, professionalism, and style. She wants to be able to grab any item from her closet in the morning, and look like a put-together professional. She sees it in terms of costuming: dressing for the role she has to play.
Friend B is a professional woman as well. Her job requires a college degree, but is also physical and doesn't require dressing up. A very active person, she likes to wear comfortable clothes, like sweat pants and gym-wear, on her days off. However, when people routinely tell her she looks like a teenager or young college student, she finds this annoying. She worries that people are telling her she's immature, or are judging her as less serious because of her clothes. So now she's wondering: should she make an effort to dress more "adult" in order to forestall those comments? And if she does, does that mean she's less of herself?
We know clothes have meaning, but what gives them meaning? When I was a kid, wearing bright, clean white sneakers was proof of what a dork you were: you didn't even go outside! The first thing we kids did when we got new sneakers was go for a walk to dust them up. Nowadays, I'm told, brilliantly clean sneakers have the opposite meaning: they are a form of conspicuous consumption (or conspicuous leisure) because they prove that the wearer can afford to buy new ones when the old ones get dirty! The meaning changed, but no-one knows when or how. And what happened to the old meaning when the new one came in?
Are sweatpants slovenly, or do they mean comfort and activity, and only become slovenly if they're dirty? Is the true meaning found in what I feel when I put it on, or in the interpretations of others? What happens to that cool rainbow shirt my friend used to wear when, more recently, rainbows have come to mean the wearer is proudly gay? My friend puts the shirt away, not wanting to part with it, but unwilling to wear something that now has a message she doesn't intend.
"SHOULD WE DRESS BETTER?"
Back in 2013, Peter Lappin of Male Pattern Boldness blog posed the question "Should we dress better". Among other points, he posited that dressing is a social activity and says something about how we regard the society we're in.
"The way we dress is a reflection not only of how we see ourselves, but also of how we feel about our community. With the exception of a few isolates, most of us have interactions with others every day. We live in the world, even if we don't know many people in it. Dressing in a way that makes others comfortable is a way of acknowledging that we are social animals and of showing appreciation for our community. Same goes with dressing to suit the occasion (attending a religious ceremony, the opera, dinner at a restaurant, wedding, etc.)."
The comments section is quite interesting and brings up several interesting points and counterpoints.
People dress to be "comfortable", but whose comfort is implied? Their own. What about the general public? What responsibility to we have to make others comfortable?
People say "I should be judged for myself, not what I wear"... but those same people might argue that what they wear is an expression of themselves. Ripple Dandelion's comment was spot on:
"Even though people will say that they are just not concerned about the image they project with their clothing and grooming, they nonetheless have a specific effect they are going for. It's not just scruffy and dressed down, it's scruffy and dressed down in a specific way or specific brands. It's still coded communication about how you identify yourself. So I think we've exchanged one set of dress standards for another.
Perhaps the well-dressed people in old photos were not "well dressed" by the standards of their own time, but by ours. Perhaps the sea of suits and fedoras was just "blending in" for them, and they perceived other details to be signifiers of wealth, respect, "trying too hard" et cetera.
Because I dress up more than average, and wear unique things, I get comments a lot. Usually people are positive, sometimes puzzled ("What's the occasion?"), sometimes uneasy or judgemental ("Why do you have to be so formal all the time?"). Mostly, though, people are trying to figure out what my clothes mean. I usually grin and say I'm dressing up for life, and they accept that explanation.
Sometimes a woman will compliment me on looking so nice, then immediately tell me that she couldn't possibly take "all that time getting dressed", and I wonder how long it takes her to do her makeup. I've seen women spend ten minutes putting on their faces in the morning, and I can get dressed entirely and do my hair in that time! So she does have time for her appearance; she just strives for a different appearance than I do. We have the time for what we value.
To pretend our clothes don't have meaning is sophistry, but so is assuming that meaning is innate. Rather, it is culturally determined. When Paul told the Corinthians that those of them who were female should cover their heads, it wasn't because veils have a universal, immutable meaning of virtue, it was because they lived in a city where bare-headedness in a woman was code for "prostitute". He wasn't saying "Christian woman of all times and places should wear veils"; he was saying Christian women should take care not to look like prostitutes. "Respectable" looks different today in America than it did in ancient Corinth, but the desire to look respectable is the same.
In a way, semiotics is a bit like money: things have value because everyone agrees they do. Money is money because we agree it is. Tailcoats are formal because we agree they are. Things mean things because we mean them. We bathe in a semiotic sea every day.
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